Saturday, May 24, 2008

Criminalizing Work

It's amazing how swift justice can be when it comes to undocumented workers, as nearly 300 of them discovered this week. From today's NY Times:

WATERLOO, Iowa — In temporary courtrooms at a fairgrounds here, 270 illegal immigrants were sentenced this week to five months in prison for working at a meatpacking plant with false documents.

The prosecutions, which ended Friday, signal a sharp escalation in the Bush administration’s crackdown on illegal workers, with prosecutors bringing tough federal criminal charges against most of the immigrants arrested in a May 12 raid. Until now, unauthorized workers have generally been detained by immigration officials for civil violations and rapidly deported. ...

The unusually swift proceedings, in which 297 immigrants pleaded guilty and were sentenced in four days, were criticized by criminal defense lawyers, who warned of violations of due process. Twenty-seven immigrants received probation. ...

Most of the workers were from Guatemala and had come to the US to earn money to support their families. According to the article, they worked under some pretty harsh conditions at the kosher plant.

Since 2004, the plant has faced repeated sanctions for environmental and worker safety violations. It was the focus of a 2006 exposé in The Jewish Daily Forward and a commission of inquiry that year by Conservative Jewish leaders.

In Postville, workers from the plant, still feeling aftershocks from the raid, said conditions there were often harsh. In interviews, they said they were often required to work overtime and night shifts, sometimes up to 14 hours a day, but were not consistently paid for the overtime.

And the penalty for such an employer under the recent ICE raid? Well, that case hasn't been brought yet, and may not because the company has been "cooperating" with the feds in the workers' cases. Only the workers have been charged with the federal criminal offense and shipped off to prison.

That criminal charges requiring hard time were even brought is significant.

The large number of criminal cases was remarkable because immigration violations generally fall under civil statutes. Until now, relatively few immigrants caught in raids have been charged with federal crimes like identity theft or document fraud.

“To my knowledge, the magnitude of these indictments is completely unprecedented,” said Juliet Stumpf, an immigration law professor at Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland, Ore., who was formerly a senior civil rights lawyer at the Justice Department. “It’s the reliance on criminal process here as part of an immigration enforcement action that takes this out of the ordinary, a startling intensification of the criminalization of immigration law.”

So there you have it: working under terrible conditions in order to support your family is a crime if you can't prove your right to work in the the US. Hiring and abusing those workers, eh, not so much. But then, that's how this administration operates.

I suspect that what's really going on here is that the pissant in chief is punishing not only the workers, but a Congress that wouldn't give him what he and his business buddies wanted: a guest worker program. The fact that it throws some red-meat to the Tancredo xenophobes and racists is just icing on the cake. Meanwhile, 270 men and women are going to federal prison for five months before they get deported.

241 days.

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Blogger shrimplate said...

This is ridiculously harsh. The workers probably had it bad enough under the Rubashkins, the owners of the kosher slaughterhouse. That's got to be a tough job.

Most of the immigrants that Stephen Bloom notes in his book Postville; A Clash of Culturs in Heartland America, were initially from eastern Europe and found their way to Iowa via the Rubashkin family businesses in NYC. Presumably they were *whiter* than the Guatemalans.

I think that's part of the issue here: racism.

Postville was a town of 1,465 before the Rubashkins arrived to start their glatt slaughterhouse. They provided 130 jobs and bought 35 houses in a town that had long gone to seed.
There was friction between the Lubavitcher newcomers, well-heeled city people with money and a starkly insular culture, and the rural townfolk.

Racial and social division lines had already been drawn, so the arrival of Latin Americans probably just stirred an already over-boiling pot.

The Rubashkins were probably already lax in their concern for the legal status of some of their workers, so I can see the point of the raids.

But why is it always the poorest among us who are punished most severely? The work is inhumanely long and difficult, the pay spurious, and still they get screwed by authorities.

It sickens me.

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

they're softening up the audience for the day when the 8 million on the list that's being compiled are hauled off to the camps that are being built to house "illegals," because you just know that when the sweep comes the claim will be that "these people are all illegal aliens."

yeah, i am an illegal alien at this point. i am alienated by the criminalistic bent of the united states gov't and pose a threat of contagion to anyone i might come in contact with.

11:06 AM  

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